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Thinking of home in oil country

A couple of days after I walked into Watford City from the north and set up my tent at the city park campground, I went out to see Tomi Ballard, who is living in an indoor RV park five miles south of town.

Tomi, who is 55, moved to North Dakota with her husband, Aaron, one year ago from El Dorado, Arkansas. After Aaron lost a job at one plant that closed, then another, the couple came to the Bakken oil boom to try to save their house and two acres.

“My hometown is not prospering,” Tomi told me. “It is continually shutting down.”

At the indoor RV park, Tomi keeps a black-and-white wedding photo of her parents on a table in the tidy lot next to their trailer, and she has a generous supply of sweet tea on hand for visitors.

On Memorial Day, Tomi and Aaron had gone to celebrate with friends who live in a nearby trailer in a westward facing unit of the RV park.

“We had just shut our big door when Mr. Bobby went to the door and said, ‘oh my God, there’s a tornado’,” Tomi said.

This is the photo Aaron took soon after.

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They watched as the gray-brown funnel cloud swept across a hilltop thick with trailers. It snaked down a hill to a low spot that was home to more than a dozen more trailers. As the tornado swept the trailers off the ground, the funnel turned to a rainbow of color, Tomi said, with bits of red, blue, green and more.

When I stopped by the site days after the tornado, it looked like this.

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Tomi and I talked a lot about home, something I’ve seen take so many forms among the workers come from afar to the North Dakota prairie. Tomi believes that home is where you are, and she and Aaron have cultivated a new community in the oil field.

“I’d say we have five couples here that we truly believe to be our friends,” Tomi said.

It has been more than five years since oil companies began using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to open up the rich oil deposits of the Bakken formation, a swath of rock some 10,000 feet beneath Watford City. Between 2008 and today the population has jumped from 1,400 to more than 10,000, with thousands more living in trailer parks and man camps in the surrounding countryside.

It seems everyone here – from third-generation ranch families to others who come from distant states every day to make a living in the oil field – is trying to figure out what new kind of place the city is becoming.

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